Enlightenment Values and Education

Ignorance is Not a Virtue

Fresno Bee, May 20, 2016

  • Ignorance, enlightenment are political issues
  • American universities are committed to enlightenment values
  • Democracies flourish when citizens are enlightened

Obama at Rutgers graduation- Ignorance is not a virtuePresident Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.

But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”


The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.

The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.

Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.

We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.

Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.

But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.

Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.

Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.

Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.


Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.

To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.

Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.

Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.

Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article78862672.html#storylink=cpy

Perspective gained from the mountaintops

August 9, 2013

Summer trips to the mountains can open important vistas. The mountains provoke a sense of the sublime, offering hints of meaning that inspire reflection. Mountain vistas, oddly enough, provide a source for understanding human dignity.

It is important to occasionally observe the slow work of the glaciers, the relentless rush of waterfalls, and the immense temporal vistas of the starry night. It is edifying to lose yourself before the overpowering sublimity of the natural world. Our lifetimes are insignificant when considered from the vantage point of Half Dome. The length of human history is nothing at all when compared with the history of the planet, the solar system or the galaxy.

Romantic poets and philosophers celebrated the experience of the sublime in nature. It is sobering to know that from the standpoint of glacial time, nothing we do matters. But it is possible to be uplifted and inspired in the face of the relentless forces of nature.

Despite what the mountains tell us about our own insignificance, we know that the only thing that matters to us is this meager existence of ours. The glaciers may not care about our passions and ideas. But for each of us, present awareness is of infinite worth. The sublime contradiction between the fullness of consciousness and the fact of our own finitude is the source of deep wonder and thought.

I often ask students at the beginning of the semester whether they know the names of any of their great-great-grandparents. It is not surprising that, for the most part, they do not. The present generation has little need for remembrance that goes back beyond a few decades. We have too much to do today.

The past recedes quickly as we rush toward the edges of our lives. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will each be forgotten. But the waterfalls will roar and the granite cliffs will silently endure, as the marks we’ve left behind are effaced by the erosion of time.

How does such an awareness of our insignificance and the experience of the sublime connect to our understanding of ethics?

One response to the sublime is to “seize the day.” A sense of your own finitude can drive you to want to live the present moment to the fullest. Time is short. So make the most of every second. But we ought to avoid nihilistic hedonism and egoistic preoccupation. An ethical approach to seizing the day teaches us to live aware and engaged, embracing the totality of experience, without narcissistic self-absorption.

Another response to our fragile mortal existence aims to develop reverence for the past and a sense of gratitude toward those who paved the way. This is a feature of many religious traditions which commemorate ancient stories about those who came before. An ethic of remembrance attempts to slow the onslaughts of time, insisting that the past has meaning.

Awareness of our own mortal frailty should also lead toward deep reverence for life. If this is the one and only opportunity for life that each of us gets, then we should work to make things better, especially for those whose lives are miserable and even shorter than our own.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that two things filled him with awe and wonder: the starry skies above and the moral law within. The most amazing aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature is that we are able to conceive it. No other creature has a sense of the depths of time, understands the work of the glaciers or recognizes the movements of the planets. Human consciousness is a rare and precious gift in the vast and unconscious cosmos.

Likewise, no other creature is able to think about the meaning of existence and the questions of ethics. We are the only beings in the universe who conceive right and wrong, good and evil. That wonderful capacity for moral reflection is what imbues human life with dignity.

The mountains are majestic. The work of glaciers is awesome. The thundering waterfalls are inspiring. But there is nothing on earth comparable to the majestic and awesome thunder of the human mind that witnesses these wonders.